First academic review

I am absolutely delighted to have had a very good review in the current (20 March 2013) online issue of the Annual Bulletin of Historical Literature.  Unfortunately, it is not open-access. The reviewer, Dr Gareth Atkins of Magdalene College, Cambridge, completed a very well-regarded PhD on the Clapham Sect, so his opinion matters a great deal to me.

Of course Atkins has a few reservations and qualifications, but overall, his comments are extremely positive.  He has read the book thoroughly and perceptively. I especially like the sentence,

‘The chapter dealing with [Wilberforce’s] abortive hunt for his life in his mid-thirties…is priceless: instead of the polished orator we hear the authentic voice of a sexually frustrated bachelor, whose flirtatious indecision almost landed him in a legal suit for breach of promise.’

He ends,

‘that Stott can be sympathetic without being uncritical makes the “Saints” seem both more human and more believable, and it is this above all that makes her book such a good read.’

Well, I tried to make it readable and I’m glad Gareth enjoyed it.

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Hague Biography of Wilberforce revisited

Going through my cuttings, I came across my print-out of Jane Stevenson’s review of William Hague’s William Wilberforce: the Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner (HarperPress 2007). It is a very fair treatment of the book’s strengths and weaknesses. Hague ‘is predictably good at the mechanisms of politics’ and ‘neatly conveys the career politician’s sense of debate as performance’. But she also notes that he does not handle ‘the complexities of 18th-century religion’ with ‘sympathy or insight’ and that he ‘does not attempt to grapple with the private man’.

‘What did his father’s death do to him? Or the vehement opposition of his mother to his adored aunt and uncle? Come to that, what was his mother like? Or his sister? …Neither woman’s personality is granted so much as a sentence-worth of consideration.’

I could also add that his treatment of Wilberforce’s marriage is perfunctory. Like many previous biographers, he gets Barbara Spooner’s age wrong. She was twenty-five when she married the thirty-seven-year old Wilberforce, not twenty. A small point perhaps, but these things mattered at the time.

There does not seem to be a surviving parish record for Barbara’s birth, but in a letter to his son, Samuel, dated 27 December 1827, Wilberforce reports her as having recently celebrated

her fifty-sixth birthday (Bodleian Library, MS Wilberforce, c. 1, fo. 198b). Her death certificate of 1847 records her age as seventy-five; she would have been seventy-six on 26 December. She died at East Farleigh in Kent on 21 April and the dates of her birth and death are given clearly on the family tombstone, put up by her son, Robert.

Wilberforce graves, East Farleigh, Kent

Wilberforce graves, East Farleigh, Kent

This doesn’t detract from the things Hague does well. But his lack of interest in the personal is intriguing. Perhaps I err in the opposite direction?!